by James Bowman
According to The Independent of London, a study by Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College in the journal Psychological Science has shown that religious belief begins with awe inspired not by the supernatural but by the natural world. “It’s not that the presence of the supernatural elicits awe, it’s that awe elicits the perception of the presence of the supernatural.” I don’t know that this supposedly scientific view is any more flattering to religious belief than the opposite one, but I thought of it on reading a tribute in The Daily Telegraph by Gerry De Groot to the English county of Northumberland which is trying to cut down on light pollution in order to give its inhabitants — and others in search of increasingly hard-to-find darkness — a more awe-inspiring view of the night sky.
While the Northumberland initiative started out as another effort in green-hearted do-goodery, it quickly became something sublime. When the lights went out, locals made an extraordinary discovery. They found that, far from expanding our world, light actually shrinks it. The “clean, well-lighted place” is finite, its parameters defined by the strength of luminescence. Darkness, on the other hand, is infinite. Overcome its sinister connotations and we find our world grows larger. Instead of being one pathetic soul with a flashlight, we become a citizen of a vast universe.
Has anyone done a study of the growth of atheism correlated with that of light pollution? My guess is that the two things are likely closely to correspond, though of course causation does not necessarily follow in the one direction any more than in the other. Which is to say that common sense may doubt atheism causes light pollution and suspect that light pollution causes atheism, but there is no way of knowing for sure if either conjecture is true. Still, we should be aware of possible influences upon our proclivity both to believe and not to believe.
On irony. “You’ve got to hand it to Jesus,” is either a very good or a very bad introduction to a newspaper column. Which it is depends on the context. Or you could just look at the by-line and see that the piece is by Howard Jacobson. Here’s how he goes on:
He didn’t settle for the easy part of being a rabbi, turning up to charity fund raisers or telling folksy parables about the wise man of Minsk to bored barmitzvah boys. He went out, in Matthew’s words, “to cities”, or wandered by the sea shore where “great multitudes were gathered unto him”. I have started to do the same. “Lecturing,” I call it. Addressing people in the streets on matters of practical morality, dress sense, litter — that sort of thing.
I take it that the ironic, self-deprecating tone is both Jewish and English, though it is also difficult for all but the best writers to carry off. That may be why so many people profess to dislike irony: sheer envy. I particularly liked the bit of Mr Jacobson’s effusion where, after mentioning a lecture he gave someone on wearing headphones while walking in the street he adds en passant,
Now I have been careful about inveighing against the wearing of headphones in public places ever since a person apparently wired up to the usual musical inanities walked blindly into me, stopped in amazement and, before I could dress him down, told me that by wonderful coincidence he was listening to my latest novel on audio book. I let him off with a caution.
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This week: Lectures on Camus & Coleridge, a new Beethoven biography & a modern take on traditional Chinese art.
Fiction: The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev, translated by Philip Simpson: Shalev's 2001 book, Love Life, stirred controversy due to its sexual content. Her new novel, The Remains of Love, while far less provocative, revisits many of her most common themes: loyalty, family, and obsession. Hemda Horovitz lies dying in a hospital bed, reminiscing about her trying childhood growing up in a kibbutz with her stern father. Her two children now face their own familial challenges. Her son Anver is trapped in a passionless marriage and a boring job. Dina, Hemda’s daughter, gave up her career to connect with her own teenage daughter who is drawing further and further away. Anver begins a relationship with a widow while Dina considers adopting another child in this novel that explores the highs and lows of commitment, religion, and growing old. In her review, the playwright Julia Pascal calls The Remains of Love “a hypnotic study of an Israeli family by a novelist of immense talent.”
Nonfiction: Beethoven: The Man Revealed by John Suchet: The host of the morning show on Britain’s Classic FM, John Suchet has written a new biography that traces the composer’s life from his difficult childhood to his struggle maintaining relationships to the decline of his hearing. While it revisits well-known episodes in Beethoven’s life—creating some of his most famous compositions, his competition with Mozart—it does much more than just retread old ground. Drawing on rare and newly discovered source material, Suchet crafts an illuminating profile of his subject, and explains how Beethoven’s inner character found expression in his work.
Poetry: A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946–1961 edited by Elizabeth Murphy, foreword by William Logan: A chance meeting at the University of North Carolina in 1944 began six decades of friendship and correspondence between the poet Donald Justice and the novelist Richard Stern. This collection of their earliest exchanges reveals emerging writers finding their voices, providing criticism of one another, and discussing the influence of friends, teachers, and contemporaries. Previously unpublished poems by both men appear in the book, which includes a foreword by New Criterion poetry critic William Logan. Justice was a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, and a collection of his work that appeared in the magazine can be found here.
Art: “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014): For those who find contemporary Chinese art disappointing, "Ink Art" at the Metropolitan Museum is a cause for reevaluation. Curated by Maxwell K. Hearn, the exhibition looks at artists and artworks that engage with China's artistic traditions rather than merely riff off of Pop and Western influences.
Music: Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis at Carnegie Hall (Saturday): On Saturday night, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter appears in recital at Carnegie Hall with Lambert Orkis. The eclectic and intriguing program includes works by Schubert and Saint-Saens, Witold Lutoslawski's poetic Partita, and world premieres of pieces by Previn and Penderecki.
Other: On Camus at 92Y, New York (Sunday): Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston and author of the new Camus biography, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will deliver a lecture on the writer, his legacy, and fulfillment.
From the archive: Notes on photography by W. S. Di Piero, October 1987: Tracing the history of the medium, and a look at the work of Edward Weston.
From our latest issue: Bernard Berenson revisited by Marco Grassi: The life of Bernard Berenson—a man who completely changed the way historians, collectors, and dealers look at art.
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David Zinman; photo courtesy davidzinman.com
Thomas Adès, the British composer, seems to have reached the stage where, whatever he writes, someone will program it. That’s stardom. Last Thursday, the New York Philharmonic opened a concert with his Three Studies from Couperin, a work he composed for chamber orchestra in 2006. What he has done is arrange three harpsichord pieces by that French Baroque master. The evening’s program notes quoted him as saying, “My ideal day would be staying home and playing the harpsichord works of Couperin—new inspiration on every page.”
That speaks well of Adès, I think. Ravel liked Couperin too (Le tombeau de Couperin). And making arrangements of early masters is an honorable pastime. Ten years ago, Michael Hersch, the American composer, arranged music of an earlier composer than Couperin: Josquin des Prez. (Hersch’s arrangements are for piano, however, not chamber orchestra.)
Adès’s arrangements are offbeat and unexpected. His instrumentation includes the bass marimba, two “small metal bars,” and five roto-toms. Percussion aside, these “studies” are rather quiet, subdued, inward. Adès has done something interesting with Couperin. But the studies have an air of experimentation, of just playing around—of private amusement (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They may be more suited to a small room of music-lovers and friends than to a big concert hall with a major orchestra onstage.
But, again, if Adès writes it, someone will play it, or sing it—which is a lucky position.
The evening’s conductor was David Zinman, the American who is the music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. After Adès-Couperin came Mozart: his Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat, K. 456. The soloist was Richard Goode, a veteran American like Zinman.
Goode has the habit of singing—not merely with his fingers but also with his voice. To some, this is charming, endearing; to others of us, it is a bad habit, to be stamped out. “But Gould did it!” people say. Yes, and Gould was meshugge (as well as brilliant and irreplaceable). In any event, Goode sang loudly at the beginning of the concerto. But thereafter, he mainly piped down.
Years ago, I dubbed him “Mr. Smooth,” because he is a great respecter of the musical line. He is not one to play wrong accents. There are no lumps in his porridge. And so it was, mainly, in this Mozart concerto. In addition to smooth, he was clear and sparkling. This is not to say that execution was immaculate: Some notes failed to sound, for example. But we are reminded that life is not a studio recording.
I have noticed something about the top pianists over the years—and this I do find sort of charming or endearing: When faced with passagework, especially of a fast and tricky nature, they often rush—just like child piano students. Goode did a little of this in the first movement of the Mozart.
I might also mention that he used music, i.e., the score. Plenty of top pianists have done this: Hess, for one, and Richter, for another. But it was odd, somehow, to see Goode looking at the music for the cadenza. This is probably because cadenzas have, or are supposed to have, a spontaneous, improvisatory feeling.
Goode availed himself of cadenzas written by the master himself: Mozart. It would be nice, however, if he rolled his own—if he called on his skills to fashion his own cadenzas. Mozart would appreciate it, I think.
The second movement, Andante, had just the right tempo. And picking tempos for Mozart’s slow movements, or “slow” movements, can be a very difficult thing. The tempo giusto can be elusive. And Goode, and Zinman, had it. Sitting there, I thought of a remark usually attributed to Artur Schnabel. It goes something like, “Mozart is too easy for children and too hard for adults.” Goode sang nicely—with his fingers. Zinman conducted nicely too, with a sense of Mozart’s own sense of light and dark.
Here is a question you may not have considered—I haven’t considered it much myself: After you have finished one movement—this Andante, let’s say—when do you start the next movement? Well, it depends. There is an art to it. It takes musical, and some theatrical, awareness. And Goode started the third movement, the finale, at just the right moment.
His playing in this movement, marked Allegro vivace, was lively and lucid. The downward scales sounded wistful; the upward scales sounded bright. What was lacking, or too much lacking, was humor. I thought of something that Paul Johnson writes in his new biography of Mozart: “Nobody took music more seriously. Nobody got more jokes out of it.”
Johnson also emphasizes that Mozart got great pleasure out of life—and gave pleasure to others, as he continues to do. Often, Mozart’s life is portrayed as tragic. It had its unhappy elements, sure (like most lives). But it was overall a good and of course extremely productive one, shot through with delight. This concerto reminded me of that fact.
(Mozart’s life was cruelly short, you say? Maybe, but it was four years longer than Schubert’s.)
After intermission, Zinman and the Philharmonic offered a Mendelssohn symphony, the third one in A minor, called the “Scottish.” I was unable to stay for it, unfortunately. But allow me to say what I have long said about David Zinman: If he were a European with an exotic name, we would probably make more fuss over him. Instead, he’s just good ol’ David from here in NYC.
And I will close with an anecdote—seeing as I have mentioned Mozart, Dame Myra Hess, and cadenzas. When I was a teenager, I knew a pianist who had turned pages for Dame Myra one evening. This was in my guy’s student days. In the greenroom beforehand, Dame Myra asked him what he was working on. Among other things, a Mozart concerto, he said. “Whose cadenzas are you using?” asked Dame Myra. The young man replied that he had composed his own. “Oh, good for you,” said the great musician. “I’m not gifted that way.”
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by James Panero
Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive
We think a lot about the future of libraries here at The New Criterion. This month in our special art issue, be sure to take a look at "Philanthropic tyranny at the NYPL," Michael J. Lewis's feature on the New York Public Library's Central Library Plan.
Today at Hyperalleric, I look at the Internet Archive, which has survived a recent fire, and the Internet's de facto librarian, Brewster Kahle.
Click here to read "At the Internet Archive, Saving Data While Spurning the Cloud."
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This week: Burke vs. Paine, an art bacchanal in Miami, and performances by Sirs Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart.
Fiction: Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Adam Thirlwell: Writing in the Soviet Union during the first half of the twentieth century, Krzhizhanovsky described himself as being “known for being unknown.” This collection of fable-esque short stories from New York Review Books, almost all unpublished during the author’s life, are humorous and absurd, yet insightful and thought provoking: After moving to Moscow, a journalist becomes obsessed with the details of the life of his apartment’s previous occupant; a pianist’s fingers leave him to spend a night out on the town; a man’s life goal of biting his own elbow leads to a new critique of Kant; a series of letters give a detailed portrait of Krzhizhanovsky’s Russia; and more. With visible connections to Chesterton, Poe, Kafka, and others, this collections provides a solid introduction to an important but little-known Russian literary figure who has been called “Borges-before-Borges” and “belongs with the best of the Russian prose writers.”
Nonfiction: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left by Yuval Levin: Readers of The New Criterion who are acquainted with the differing ideologies of Burke and Paine will appreciate this penetrating study of eighteenth-century political theory. In his new book, the National Affairs editor Yuval Levin traces the opposing views of Burke and Paine—the former conservative, the latter progressive—from their initial debates over the French Revolution to their still visible influence on modern issues including abortion, welfare, education, and more. Peggy Noonan points out that this book, a restorative tonic to the current discourse in Washington, “brings out the richness of the tradition underlying our politics . . . reminds us that politics is an intellectually serious thing that deserves better than the shallowness and cynicism that fills our political conversations . . . [and] reminds us that the right and left are each rooted in a desire to see politics serve the cause of human flourishing, even if they understand that cause very differently.”
Poetry: The Small Blades Hurt by Erica Dawson: Picking up where her Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize–winning debut Big-Eyed Afraid left off, this second collection from Dawson examines America’s shared past through formal poetry that, as the New Criterion Poetry Editor David Yezzi has said, displays “her rare and enviable genius for making verse sing, which is to say croon, caterwaul, belt, syncopate, wail.”
Art: Art Basel Miami Beach (December 5–8): An orgy of self importance where attendees can never be VIP enough, this four-day festival includes exhibitions by artists from around the world, a laundry list of lectures, talks, discussions, performances, and—of course—plenty of parties. James Panero will be on the ground this year—look for his article on Art Basel in the January issue of The New Criterion.
Music: Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera (Friday): James Levine will conduct Verdi's Falstaff in a new Met production by Robert Carsen. At the end of a storied career that produced many of opera's most cherished tragedies, Verdi took on another project, turning out a comic masterpiece based on one of Shakespeare's silliest plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ambrogio Maestri will lead a stellar cast that includes Stephanie Blythe, Angela Meade, and Lisette Oropesa.
Other: No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot at Cort Theatre, New York (times vary, Tuesday–Sunday): Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Billy Crudup, and Shuler Hensley star in Harold Pinter’s comedy No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot, both directed by Sean Mathias.
From the archive: To see is to believe: the life & films of Jean Renoir by John Simon, October 1994: On Renoir’s private life and his highly visible impact on New Wave film.
From our latest issue: Philanthropic tyranny at the NYPL by Michael J. Lewis: The Central Library Plan's renovations to the New York Public Library will hurt both scholars and average users alike.
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Alice Coote, Martina Serafin, and Peter Rose in Der Rosenkavalier; Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
How do you want your prelude to Der Rosenkavalier? Well, you want it burbling, gay, swirling, giddy—maybe sex-drenched. In any event, a Rosenkavalier needs to have liftoff. And last Monday at the Metropolitan Opera, it did not. Edward Gardner, an English conductor, was in the pit, and the prelude in his hands had little effect. The orchestra sounded weak, without heft. That is not the Met orchestra, as you may know.
Jump now to the end of the opera—to the trio and the duet that follows. These were somewhat labored, stilted, with the duet marred by strange pauses. This phrasing was no friend to musicality.
I have dumped on Gardner, but this is true too: He was a good manager of affairs. Der Rosenkavalier is a busy, tricky opera, and many a conductor has stumbled over it. Gardner did not, acquitting himself honorably.
Strauss loved women—have I mentioned that this opera is by Richard Strauss?—and he especially loved sopranos. So, in discussing the cast, I will begin with the women.
Martina Serafin was the Marschallin, and this soprano is a real Viennese, native-born. To my knowledge, she is no relation to the late Italian conductor, Tullio Serafin. The soprano is not only a real Viennese, she proved a real Marschallin. She had the worldly wisdom, the regal coolness, and the beautiful resignation (“Ja, ja”). In voice, psychology, and even looks, she was the Marschallin, or certainly Marschallin-like.
She was also a foot taller than her Octavian, or so it appeared from my seat. Octavian was Alice Coote, the celebrated English mezzo. Coote had just come off a starring role at the Met: the detective in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Octavian is a very different character, but she handled him as capably as she did her detective. She was secure, smart, musical. She was very good at conveying the young man’s impetuosity and exuberance. As a bonus, she delivered some first-class high notes.
I have a complaint, however. When Octavian—a girl playing a boy—disguises himself as “Mariandel”—a girl playing a boy playing a girl—the voice has to be distinctive, yes. The mezzo should sing in a separate voice. But I’m not sure why she has to sing off-key, as Coote did. I’m also not sure that Mariandel should be a complete yokel—a character out of Hee Haw.
Erin Morley, an American soprano, was Sophie, and she did a perfectly creditable job. When I saw her last season as Constance in Dialogues des carmélites (Poulenc), I said to myself, “Now, no fair comparing her with Heidi Grant Murphy,” one of her predecessors in the role. At this Rosenkavalier, I said the same thing. And here I am, making the comparison in print. As Sophie, Morley lacked a soaring quality, that ability to fly, float, and spin. But, to say it once more, she was a perfectly creditable Sophie, entirely worthy—and comparisons are odious (or odorous).
One of the best moments of the night was the Presentation of the Rose—of Peter Rose, that is, who busted into the Marschallin’s bedroom memorably and delightfully. This was a pro’s entrance. Rose, an English bass, was portraying Baron Ochs, a role in which he has much experience. So enjoyable was his characterization, I had to remind myself that he was singing well. An opera performer must sing, above all. Rose did not have strong low notes, but he made the most of what he had.
Let me caution that Rose’s Ochs is not for everyone, and I understand his detractors. His is a fairly hammy Ochs, and some prefer a subtler one. But if you like the hammier, cruder, broader kind of Ochs, no one does it better than Rose. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, the German baritone singing Faninal, was sturdy. And Eric Cutler, an American, made a fine Italian Tenor. He had just the right dose of stereotype in him, if you know what I mean. He suggested a stereotypical Italian tenor while still singing beautifully and seriously.
The production was a classic, that of Nathaniel Merrill, from 1969. It is beautiful, down to the drawing of the curtain in Act I—the curtain draws in sighing synchronicity with the music and story. Like Rose’s Ochs, this Rosenkavalier is not for everyone. It is too “traditional,” too pretty, too “chocolate box.” To my eyes, it is Der Rosenkavalier. One reason I appreciate it so much, I’m sure, is that I have seen so many violative Rosenkavaliers, particularly in Europe.
In a public interview with me once, Barbara Bonney, the soprano, told a story. She was singing Sophie in some production, and the director wanted her to sing her part in the Presentation of the Rose with her back turned to the audience. I can understand why the director would have wanted this, theatrically—but I’m not sure he had any experience of music.
Bonney went to him and said, “I’m sorry, but the Presentation of the Rose is such a big deal for a soprano like me. We prepare for it and hope for it over our years of training. Would it be all right if I sang toward the audience?” The director, to his credit, relented.
Finally, I’d like to say something about the piece itself: Der Rosenkavalier. If you’re not crazy about it, give it a little time. When I was younger, I didn’t care for it much, though I knew it was a masterpiece, and of course loved the big excerpts. I especially loved the orchestral suite. But the opera as a whole was so busy, so talky, and so long.
Honestly, I had a hard time loving all of the opera that inspired this one: The Marriage of Figaro.
During an intermission at the Met last Monday, I talked with an esteemed music scholar and critic about Der Rosenkavalier. “Don’t you love this piece?” I said. He made a face, shrugged, and said, “I like it, but I don’t love it. Needs an editor.” I understand him entirely. But I must say, the work has grown on me. One of its virtues is that the orchestra expresses every word, thought, and action in the opera. By now, I appreciate every note—or nearly every one of them—from the opening rapture to the scurrying Mohammed.
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by James Bowman
Listening to Rush Limbaugh last week, I was struck by the caller who told El Rushbo that, up until the moment of her call, she had never been able to bring herself to reveal to a pollster her disapproval of President Obama for fear of being thought — by the pollster! — a racist. Now that so many others were expressing such disapproval on account of the Obamacare fiasco, she said, she feels safer in stating what has all along been her true opinion. I guess she figured the pollster would be less censorious if he reflected that not everybody now expressing a negative view of the President could be a racist.
I was reminded of a piece I wrote in The New Criterion over a decade ago called “We’re taking a poll on how bright you are. . .” which pointed to the not-often-enough recognized effect of people’s desire to look good in the pollster’s eyes when answering psephological questions. On that occasion, I was writing about polls which showed a majority of people believed the Bush administration knew more than it was saying about the collapse of the Enron Corporation. Remember that? Well, of course people were going to say that, I thought. Who wants to be classed with the naive and those not — as the pollster obviously was — “in the know” about what only less intelligent people were likely to take at face value?
These kinds of questions pop up more often than you might think, and the obviously skewed response to them must accordingly give rise to a lot of pretty worthless commentary. The most recent example came with the news from Gallup in the week of the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination that “a clear majority of Americans (61 per cent) still believe others besides Lee Harvey Oswald were involved.” True, “this percentage is the lowest found in nearly 50 years” — that is, since December, 1966 when exactly 50 per cent claimed to believe in multiple assassins. But if such a consistency of response over half a century doesn’t show that conspiracy is the default setting for most people, at least when they are asked about it by pollsters, I don’t know what does. People may not know all or even some of the conspiracy theories themselves, but they know the pollster is looking for those who do know and believe in them.
Another example from last week was an op ed in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria headed “Why Americans hate their government.” He doesn’t even cite any particular polling results to back up the extraordinary contention that Americans do hate their government, offering instead to explain the negative feelings he can take for granted. He is hardly the only one to read generic approve/disapprove polls this way, but I suspect that the high disapprove numbers are less indicative of “hate” than they are of the same programmatic response indicating what the responders believe an informed and sophisticated opinion to be. After all, aren’t the informed and sophisticated people in the media always telling them about government screw-ups?
I also suspect that Mr. Zakaria himself has an unstated purpose in selling us on the idea of a generalized hatred of government just at the moment when we see a very specific act of government that there is good reason for believing people genuinely do hate. As the bad news about Obamacare keeps on coming, it is not surprising that disapproval of the man who used to want his name attached to it and now, it seems, does not, is growing as well. Naturally, his many apologists in the media will want us to see this as just one more manifestation of popular dislike and distrust of government — doubtless the product of 50 years of Republican rhetoric about the virtues of “small” and the evils of “big” government. Don’t all the polls show this? Really, they’re reassuring themselves that the disaster for the Dems isn’t as bad as it seems. I think it probably is — and maybe even a little badder.
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Myron Magnet; photo: Kevin Daley, National Parks of New York Harbor
A week and a half ago, there was a luncheon featuring Myron Magnet at the Yale Club in New York City. It was hosted by the Manhattan Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The occasion was the launch of Magnet’s book The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817. The author gave a superb and multifaceted speech on his subject. It was followed by an equally good Q&A—questions from the audience, answers from Magnet.
I introduced him. The New Criterion has asked me to write an approximation of what I said. So, that approximation is here:
I want to call Myron a “national treasure.” But I guess that term should be reserved for Marian Anderson, Robert Frost, or Buzz Aldrin. Still, Myron is a national treasure, whether the nation knows it or not. I know it. You know it. Myron has had a big influence on me, and you too, I bet. He has had a big influence on people in high places: Rudolph Giuliani, for one, George W. Bush, for another.
A few days ago, I was e-mailing with Karl Rove. He reminded me that he read The Dream and the Nightmare, Myron’s book from 1993, and then recommended it to his guy Bush—who lapped it up like milk. Bush and Myron became brothers-in-arms.
Mona Charen hailed The Dream and the Nightmare as the Book of the Decade, which is to say, the book of the Nineties. You may regard that as a gross injustice to It Takes a Village, by Hillary Clinton, but there you have it. (By the way, I actually think it does take a village to raise a child. It’s just that my conception of the village is a lot different from Hillary Clinton’s.)
Bush and, I suppose, Myron are associated with the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” This phrase is in bad odor in the circles I normally run in. I have often quoted Phil Gramm, the former senator from Texas (and probably my favorite interviewee in politics). On hearing of this “compassionate conservatism,” he said, “Freedom is compassionate”—and then, in my mind’s ear, I hear him add, “dammit.” I agree. And so does Bush. And so does Myron. And yet, there is substance and merit to the idea of “compassionate conservatism.”
I have just come back from Houston, where I visited an extraordinary prisoner-rehabilitation program. This was Bush’s first “faith-based initiative,” implemented in 1997, when he was governor. It is “compassionate conservatism” in action. It is deeply impressive.
Reagan riled a lot of people up when he said, “I’m a contra too.” (This was during our great Nicaragua debate, you remember.) Well, if Myron Magnet is a compassionate conservative, I’m a compassionate conservative too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Myron in recent weeks, for a variety of reasons. There has been a Myron Magnet convergence. First, the new book and this luncheon. Second, my visit to Houston, and the thoughts it awakened in me about “compassionate conservatism.” Third, the mayoral election that has just taken place here in New York.
For 20 years, this city has been something like a Garden of Eden. Under Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, we have had something close to Magnet-style government. And New Yorkers, in their wisdom, have elected someone who is hostile to the very policies that have made New York great in the last two decades. This guy, I’m afraid, will make David Dinkins look like a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute.
In a podcast we did the other day, Myron referred to the mayor-elect as an “ex-Sandinista.” I said, “Are you sure about the ‘ex-’?”
Myron did his work once, and so did the Manhattan Institute at large. They told people what it took to have a decent city, and in fact a magnificent one. Now they will have to do their work again. There are no permanent victories, as the saying goes; but there are no permanent defeats either. Civilization progresses, and then regresses. You have to push the boulder up the hill again and again and again.
I was saying the other week, “If Myron Magnet and Heather Mac Donald could govern New York City, the place might float away from bliss . . .”
I guess I think of Myron as “Mr. New York” or “Mr. Urban Policy,” but he is Mr. a lot of things—an authority in a number of areas. He really is a “public intellectual,” though I wince to use that term: I’ve never liked it, but I don’t have a better alternative. Thomas Sowell is a public intellectual; so was James Q. Wilson. So is Myron.
His new book is The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817. In the last five years—I don’t know why I would date this from Inauguration Day 2009—a lot of us have been thinking about the Founding and the Founders. We have thought of them more than at any time since we were schoolkids. The current period has us thinking, What should America be? What is our purpose? Do we want an American republic distinct from Europe?
The Founders at Home is next on my reading list. Karl Rove told me he is reading it now. It’s “TERRIFIC!” he said—all capital letters, exclamation point. Knowing that I was going to see Myron at this luncheon, he then said, “Please give my best regards to Dr. Santa Claus.”
For a minute, I was kind of taken aback by this name. Then I thought, “Myron, like Santa, brings good things—good ideas, good policies, good books. And, like Santa, he knows who’s been naughty and nice.”
As far as I’m concerned, and as far as you’re concerned too, I know, Myron Magnet is a national treasure. He is certainly ours.
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This week: New translations of Tolstoy, Joseph Epstein on a literary education, Iranian art & a new staging of Beckett.
Fiction: The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Peter Carson: The Chekhov and Turgenev translator Peter Carson has now turned his attention to Tolstoy, whom Andrew Nazaryan has called “perhaps the most Russian of the great Russian writers.” These new translations were completed just before Carson’s death from cancer in Jaunary 2013, giving the meditations on death and suffering in Ilyich added poignancy. In its review, Publishers Weekly notes that these translations of Ilyich and Confession (Tolstoy’s autobiographic reflections on spirituality and youth) preserve “Tolstoy’s stripped-down late style,” and that they are “among the best treatments of death and belief in any art form.”
Nonfiction: Correspondence: 1904–1938 by Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud: The complete correspondence of Sigmund Freud with his daughter Anna, these letters cover everything from family holidays to the international explosion in popularity of psychoanalysis. While most of his work is now discredited, Sigmund Freud had a profound impact on his time. This collection traces his evolving views on women, his perception of colleagues, and his illness and death.
Poetry: Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2013 by Geoffrey Hill reviewed in The Guardian: In his review of the poet Geoffrey Hill’s latest collection, Nicholas Lezard rightly argues “If the phrase 'greatest living poet in the English language' has any meaning, then we should use it to describe Hill.”
Art: “Iran Modern” at the Asia Society, New York (through January 5, 2014): This is the first major exhibition highlighting Iran’s modern art scene. The show features over 100 works by twenty-six artists and covers the three decades that led up to the revolution in 1979. Looking at the balance between tradition and modernity, “Iran Modern” includes sections on the Saqqakhaneh movement, abstraction, calligraphy, politics, and more. Look for James Panero’s article on “Iran Modern” and art in the Middle East in the December issue of The New Criterion.
Music: Mozart’s final symphonies (Friday & Saturday): Alan Gilbert leads the New York Philharmonic in a concert of Mozart's final symphonies, including the celebrated "Jupiter," no. 41.
Other: All That Fall at 59E59 (Tuesday–Sunday): Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon star in Samuel Beckett’s 1957 radio play about a woman’s journey to meet her husband at the train station. Directed by Trevor Nunn, the show runs through December 8.
From the archive: A literary education by Joseph Epstein, June 2008: A literary education entails much more than being well read—it “teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases, with nothing more stimulating than those cases that provide exceptions that prove no rule—the unique human personality, in other words.”
From our latest issue: Jonathan Swift: man of mystery by Pat Rogers: A new biography untangles the facts and fictions of Swift’s life.
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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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December 19, 2013
FRIENDS, YOUNG FRIENDS, AND AUTHORS EVENT: Holiday Party 2013
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